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Hanoi and the long haul to Ha Long Bay

Hanoi, Ha Long Bay & Cat Ba Island

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With the city of Hue logged into the memory banks we boarded our last night train of our Vietnam trip. So, you might have heard some horror stories about overnight trains in Vietnam, but the previous two overnighters were bearable, if not alright. So I reckon you need to try things a few times before you really form an opinion about things. Take my dislike for tomatoes, for instance. I have tried to eat them on several occasions, often not even on purpose and I still despise the red fruit that so many people love. Anyway, enough about fruit and let's relive that edifying train trip to Hanoi. This is the first train trip that Lou was feeling normal, so we had bought a few drinks and sandwiches for the trip. First up, the train was almost an hour late, not really an issue in this part of the world. We boarded the train and this took a while because in our carriage there was another tour group with massive bags and bicycles to boot. Eventually we found our cabin, opened the doors and there it was a 2 inch long cockroach scuttling along the floor heading under the bottom bunk. No problem. We settled in to our cosy room chatting to Gordon and Kaye while we ate our dinner and had a beer. Now this train was squalid, it reeked of what can only be described as a sewer. and the loos were faecal - it was on the seats and the putrid smells that came from within them. I have never understood how people manage to miss the bowl when they have to go. It's incredible to think how many public toilets have poo on the toilet seats. (keep an eye out in the future.) So as per normal we headed to the party cabin for a few more beers and some card games. At one stage I swatted a cockroach off Lou's back, it was gigantic, around 4cm long and she didn't even know it was there! It really is nice chilling, playing cards, drinking and chatting on the train. It takes your mind off the decayed train and helps the time whizz by. At around 11pm we called it a night.

After an interesting nights sleep, which was not too long, our guide knocked on our door at around 5am to wake us up. After gathering our belongings we climbed off the worst, fetid train ever, thank goodness for that. We chucked our luggage into the 2 taxis kindly provided by our tour operators and walked to our hotel in Hanoi. Check-in was only at 12pm, so we left our bags at the hotel and went for a pho ( Vietnamese beef noodle soup, which is a staple breakfast) which was by far the tastiest I have had so far in Vietnam. So after breakfast and coffee, our guide was going to give us a walking tour of Hanoi, his home town.

Reluctantly, without showering for many many hours we followed "Hitler"( the name I had given him because he was always telling us what to do.) We walked past the temple of literature-Van Mieu, Vietnams 1st university was founded here in 1076. We then went to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. It is here, against his wishes to be cremated, that his embalmed body lies. It was closed due to him being re-embalmed, so I got a picture of the building. We also went to the museum and one pillar pagoda. We then followed Adolf to the old quarter before we fled the scene in a taxi headed for our hotel. After a long, hot and disinfecting shower we had a long nap and relaxed for the rest of the day.
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The following morning, after a quick pho we boarded our bus and headed up the long road to Ha Long Bay. A 4 hour drive seemed to last days, but man it was worth it. Ha Long Bay is around 1500km2 with a 120km coastline. The name means descending dragon. It is another world heritage site. The bay consists of a cluster of almost 2000 monolithic limestone islands which rise out of the ocean like tombstones. Each island is topped with thick jungle and many are hollow with massive caves. After arriving at Ha Long City on the mainland we boarded a boat for a trip to Cat Ba island where we were due to spend the night. The boat took us to some caves which were spectacular, then we chugged around the bay anchoring at one stage for a dip. This must be one of the most magnificent places you could ever wish to swim, it really was surreal. After around 20 mins of swimming and tom foolery we reboarded the boat and completed our journey to the island. Just in time to watch the sun dissolve behind the hills.

The next morning at 6am the boys and I went fishing with a local guy. Now it was not much of boat, but it was almost sea worthy and still great fun. When leaving the harbour we stopped at a large fishing boat where our skipper grabbed a bucket of bait. Then we headed out. We eventually stopped next to a massive tombstone of a rock and we dropped anchor. Now the whole time(around 40mins) on board I hadn't seen any fishing rods,line,sinkers or hooks. I was really starting to think our 20 000 dong trip was going to be a waste of time, when our skipper pulled up a loose deck plank and grabbed a chopping board, knife and a bag full of sinkers and hooks. Relief. I was starting to feel better about my 10 US$ fishing trip. So he blissfully chopped up the fish into bait sized pieces while we eagerly waited to drop a line onto the reef below us to catch some big fish. So our non-English speaking captain finished preparing the bait and then lifted another deck board to grab the gear. To my utter amazement he pulled out 3 plastic 1/2 litre bottles with some line wrapped around them with a hook and sinker on each one. We had been done in and were only going to fish for small reef fish. None the less it was still fun pulling out some fish with hand lines in the amazing surroundings of Ha Long Bay. Our fishing trip was cut short by the now daily monsoon rains that plagued us everyday in Vietnam. We had caught some fish but nothing massive. The storm hit us by surprise and we sat out the worst of it before we headed back to land. Dripping wet we went back to our hotel for a shower. The rest of the day was spent exploring the islands beaches and sampling the delicious food. We also decided to get massages, but I will let Lou explain her feelings about that story.

Ken decided he was going to have a foot massage while I opted for a back massage as my back had been hurting quite a bit. The massage started downstairs in these massage chairs, with Ken in the chair next to me. I had a male and ken had what could only be described as an elderly lady, probably my masseuses grandmother. After around 5 minutes of this guy prodding around he discovered my back pain and suggested we go upstairs so he could do me properly. Recently our group had been discussing happy endings with massages in SE Asia and I was immediately weary about this guys motives on getting me upstairs away from prying eyes. I gingerly followed this guy upstairs and lay on the massage table. So with my nerves shot and imagination running amok, the guy continued with his massage. I was waiting for the inappropriate gestures or touch which never happened, until the guy climbed up on to the massage bed and straddled me. now I thought it was my time for this well documented happy ending and my heart almost stopped. There were tiny beads of sweat collecting on my forehead, my mouth was dry and my hands clammy as my adrenaline pumped. My mind was working in overdrive deciding weather to fight or flee. As the guy straddled me and got into a good position, he gleefully clicked my back and told me the massage was over. All the stress for nothing because he was really good and worked my lower back that was aching. In fact it was one of the best massages I have ever had, amazing.
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So with an exciting afternoon over we boarded the ferry to begin our long drive back to Hanoi. The ferry took about an hour and a half and we were treated to a glorious sunset to finish our trip to an amazing landscape called Ha Long Bay. The The 4 hour bus trip to Hanoi in the dark was interesting to say the least but I will leave stories about road travel for our next blog post. Our return to Hanoi signalled the end of our Vietnam leg of our trip with a new group starting the next day for the Loas adventure.
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Posted by louslabbert 16:15 Archived in Vietnam Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises beaches art skylines people animals birds sky boats trains temples traffic food markets fishing fields street bus city vietnam sights hanoi thai ancient bbq vendors hue sounds halong_bay ho_chi_ming Comments (0)

Cambodia

A whirlwind tour through the country....

13th September 2012- Goodbye Bangkok.......

A very long day for us as our overland journey began. The bus picked us up at 7am , Cambodia bound . We spent our first night in Siem Reap, where we arrived at 16:15.. Luckily the bus stopped every 2 hours for "happy house" - the term used on the tour for a toilet break!
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Siem Reap is a small town that attracts tourists from all around the globe as it is the gateway to the magnificent temples at Angkor and the reason for our stay here. As a group we all went for a dinner - traditional Khmer food - which was great. I had a chicken coconut curry and Ken had beef lok lak, a tasty Khmer dish full of flavour served with rice and a fried egg. Then we headed to "pub street" for a few cold cheap drinks (beers US$0.50) and to get to know our group. Not wanting to be hungover for the long day of temples the following day, we headed home on a tuk-tuk at around 11pm.
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The Temples of Angkor must be SE Asia's biggest draw card and are spread out over 40 square miles around Siem Reap, built between the 8th and 13th centuries. We started the day at the massive temple complex called Bayon, named after the Banyon tree. Built between 1181-1220 it has a vast amount of relief carvings (around 4000 linear feet) of battles and of the history and beliefs of the local population. There are mysterious carvings of faces carved into towers on the 3rd level. Then we moved on to Preah Kahn - another temple built by the same king. It was steaming hot and we were all feeling like we had been sitting in a sauna for hours, so we headed for some shade, drinks and lunch. After the well deserved break we took off to explore the temple Ken really wanted to see, Ta Prohm. It hasn't been restored and it is surrounded by a moat and has been left pretty much the way it was discovered in the late 1800s. The jungle has reclaimed the temple for itself. This temple was used to film the Tomb Raider film with Angelina Jolie. It was fascinating to see how much damage the trees have done to the huge sandstone buildings. All templed out we headed to our last temple for the day and most famous temple in Cambodia, Angkor Wat. This is the supreme masterpiece of Khmer architecture. It is an impressive pyramid temple built between 1113-1150. The moat surrounding it is 570 foot wide and around 4 miles long. Probably the best views and impressions of this place are the first, when you cross the moat on the causeway and enter through the gates. Its an incredible sight and one you see on nearly every photograph of Cambodia. A very tiring day for all and one we thoroughly enjoyed. This will stay with us until we kick the bucket.
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So after quiet night of quick food, a fish pedicure and reading we crashed early. The following morning we headed off by bus to Tonle Sap Lake. This is Asia's largest fresh water lake. In the wet season it expands from around 2600 km2 to a sea-like 12000 km2. When we arrived at the lake we were ushered onto a boat which took us to Chong Kneas, a floating village. This is not a typical tourist attraction, this is a real village that many Cambodians call home. Residents live in brightly coloured houseboats that bob up and down on the choppy water. Villagers can worship at the floating catholic church or mosque. The large community of Chong Kneas consists of a network of 8 villages that lie along the Tonle Sap water way. The village migrates with the rising and falling water levels. About 6,000 residents live there. Although it sounds charming, life on these waterway is hard. Inhabitants live mainly in wooden house boats, some of the more poor live in makeshift stilt houses on the shore.
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On our last night in Siem Reap we joined our tour guide for dinner at a local restaurant. As no-one spoke english, he ordered a variety of dishes to try, including sizzling spicy beef ( yum!), spicy fried frogs , baby duck eggs and a spicy eel dish. Ken tried a bit of everything, and really enjoyed the frog dísh and baby duck eggs. I wasn't quite so adventurous and stuck to the beef and the rice! I did try the baby duck eggs and although it wasn't too bad, I didn't have any more than one bite! Was a great night away from the usual tourist part of the town.

We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Siem Reap, but it was time to go. After a long 7 hour bus journey on a public bus we arrived at a place called Kompong Cham, on the banks of the Mekong River. Thanks to the belting rain, we didn't do much here except the previous blog catch up and go out for dinner. We were treated to a beautiful sunrise though which made up for it being the sleepy hollow of Cambodia - well to us, anyway!
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Another bus journey took us to Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. It was made the capital in the 1430s, when the capital was moved from Angkor in order to increase trade and put some distance from the kingdom of Siam (Thailand). We spent a very interesting afternoon at the killing fields and the S21 prison camp. It was gut wrenching to learn how these people were slaughtered during the Pol Pot regime. S21(Tuol Sleng genocide museum)was a high school which was converted to a prison by the Khmer Rouge. It was designed for detention, interrogation, inhumane torture and killing, after confessions from the detainees were received and documented. All of the photographic evidence aand torture cells we saw and the visit to the killing fields left us with very heavy hearts and absolute disgust and sadness about how humans could treat each other. Over 2 million people were killed during the Pol Pot Regime.
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We had another morning in Phnom Penh, which we spent shopping at the local markets and picking up a few essentials at a supermarket.

Our next stop was Chambok, a rural village where we spend the night at a homestay. Very basic houses are built on stilts. The sleeping area is upstairs - matresses on the floow with mosquito nets and the living area is underneath the house, with a seperate hut for cooking and an outbuilding for the long drop toilet. The water is a piped down the hill to the village from a 40 metre high waterfall. After meeting our host families and checking out the houses we walked up to a central canteen area. Women from the village take it in turns to cook for the visitors to the village. After dinner, which was lovely, we were treated to some entertainment by the local kids who performed a series of dances for us. The whole project is about sustainable living off the land. Villages used to hunt animals from the forest and and chop trees for a living , but now, thanks to eco-tourism they are protecting their land and replanting trees etc. After the dancing we headed back to our hosts where we all sat and enjoyed a few beers and homemade rice wine. With the help of a couple of interpreters we were able to ask our host families questions and vice versa. We learnt a lot about their way of life. An early start thje next morning, thanks to the roosters. Breakfast was served back at the canteen area, again cooked by the village ladies. After breakfast we went on a guided hike through the forest to the waterfall. It was around 6km walk up the mountain. After a dip in the water we headed back to the village. What an amazing experience the homestay was and an insight into a life so far removed to what we know.
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Next up on the worlwind tour of Cambodia was a seaside resport called Sihanoukville, about 3 hours drive from Chambok. What an experience! Hawkers patrol the beach and pretty much swarm you like flies to shit. They sell everything and anything from fresh fruit to cooked crabs, prawns and squid to sunglasses and weed! Even when you sit at one of the beach side bars or restaurants they hound you. I was offered hundreds of pedicures during our stay there. On the first night we went to one of the many restaurants which do bbqs every evening. We chose a lovely local restaurant. You choose any of the meat , fish or chicken and it is served with a potato of your choice plus a salad. I had squid and Ken had the pork steaks. Was really yummy! Washed down with US$0.50 beer of course. After dinner we enjoyed a couple of drinks at an awesome beach bar that sits on stilts above the sea. So so relaxing and such a treat to see and hear the waves crashing on the rocks. Our one full beach day in Sihanoukville was pretty much ruined to the rain, but we did manage to get a few hours lying on the beach and swimming in the sea - was so lovely. While splashing in the waves it was at that point that I was so excited about moving back to South Africa and hopefully being able to do this more often. The whole afternoon and evening was a total washout, thanks to the monsoon season. We treated ourselves to a full body massage at a place called "Seeing Hands" - they employ blind or sight impaired people as the masseurs. What a great and much needed massage. An early night for us after dinner with the group and the rain still bucketing down.

Last stop in cambodia was back at Phnom Penh for one more night. Not much was on the agenda. We walked around town, sampled some tasty street food at the "Yellow Market" and enjoyed a few happy hour beers, while the rain poured again. We decided to embrace the rain rather than wait for it to stop, and went in search of a restaurant we had past earlier in the day. Thanks to Ken's good sense of direction we enjoyed a delicious bowl of Vietnamese Pho for dinner, gearing us up for Vietnam. Sopping wet and tummies full , we had a relaxing last night in Cambodia.
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We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Cambodia and we were looking forward to the next leg of our overland journey through SE Asia - Vietnam here we come.

Posted by louslabbert 14:22 Archived in Cambodia Tagged landscapes waterfalls lakes beaches bridges buildings boats temples villages rain fishing fields bus city rice museum wat pol_pot sunsets_and killing_fields _sunrises pnom_penh Comments (0)

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